I like Shanghai. It’s almost always slightly damp; in the Winter it reminds me of the UK (only warmer), and in the Summer there is occasional rain to take the edge off the heat. Failing that, there’s always A/C. It’s busy and it’s vast but there’s a metro station almost every other street corner, and any shop imaginable will be somewhere, if not where you expect.
The heat does get to me, a bit. Last time I was here around the same season, with open-air (covered but technically outdoor) showers that washed me perfectly well but made it impossible to dry off afterwards. The (capsule) hotel’s laundry area was perpetually damp; clothes left on the first day were still damp five days later. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, I chose a different hostel this time – one which Kieran favours when he’s here. I remember the envy whenever I visited him, and perhaps it was this comparison which made me remember it as being nicer than it actually was. Either that or the City Central Youth Hostel has enjoyed a few years of un-refurbishment since I saw it last.
I feel like we got into our four-bed dorm and collectively flopped, possessions and all, like so much slightly-unset jelly, over the tables and chairs in the room. A towel here, a toothbrush there. Some monetary shrapnel slowly being buried under various discarded receipts.
We made use of the hostel bar for food, and then drinks (cheap for cocktails but still as expensive as a higher-end meal) as we prepared to head out. As we sat there, a man was making rounds of the bar, filming everyone in turn (flash on, in our faces). We glowered but he clearly didn’t care; then we saw him zooming in on two Western girls, obliviously eating across the bar, and saw red. Evie marched over and a minute later they had come to join us. They were travelling sisters from Australia, having recently packed in a rural teaching job and preparing themselves for eighteen hours on a seat to Hong Kong.
The club was crowded and we were confusingly directed to a shoebox office behind the toilets for our free-everything Westerner wristbands (the entrenched racism of Chinese clubs has not changed in the slightest). This happened to be the same mall-top club from my first ever time in a nightclub. The dancefloor has been drastically shrunk to allow more space for seated (paying) customers, so we could barely even shuffle – but we were able to get free spirit mixers from the front and hadn’t paid a thing to be here.
The night ended relatively early, via McDonalds, but I was restless and didn’t sleep very well. Somewhere along the way I had lost my room key and had to be let back in by our new roommate, Adam, from Edinburgh of all places. Growing up in Hong Kong had given him an almost unplaceable accent.
The next day was a planned late start. Evie took us to Yuz art gallery in the afternoon where we were relieved to get student discount tickets to see Random International’s “Everything and Nothing”. By Evie’s strong admission it was very pretentious, but I think it’s fair to say that Kirsten and I were there for it; the exhibition was incredibly accessible to the point of being mostly interactive. To my layman’s mind, art of any kind should be capable of eliciting a response potentially other than confusion in most people. Obviously some people will glean a lot more meaning from a work than others, but complete and exclusive inaccessibility is in my opinion cheapening and cliquey – not dissimilar to the old fashioned opinion of Classics (for the few, not the many…).
This was modern art that was awe-inspiring to everyone lucky enough to experience it. The absolute highlight was the rain room: lit by a single floodlight at the far end, an indoor downpour. With a twist: wherever you stood, the rain ceased in a little circle around you, keeping you dry. We quickly discovered that the sensors were a tad slow; walking too fast dampened us considerably. But regardless it was an amazing sensation, surrounded by the calming patter but utterly unaffected by it. Ephemerally beautiful, and then our time was up.
We stopped back at the hostel and Evie’s home friend James turned up, coincidentally in Shanghai at the same time as her! Watching the two of them reminisce reminded me of myself and Millie back in Chengdu (only two weeks ago! Feels like months). The four of us headed out again for noodles and rice at a nearby place we stumbled upon. The Xinjiang barbecue next door could not convince the other two; their faces when I pointed it out said enough (last week was a baptism of fire, I feel). We stayed for cocktails at the hostel until fairly late, and made our way to bed.
The following morning (read: afternoon) was a slow-crawling ant of miscommunication (and missed-communication, while I showered). One piece of good news came in the form of my missing room key, in Evie’s bumbag! By the time I was ready, and we’d finished having a long chat with our friendly roommate Adam in the hostel cafe, it was too late for the regular 9-5 attractions so we sloped off to Nanjing road for food. Nanjing Road is famous for its blazing signs and large pedestrianised sections, split into East and West through the middle by People’s Park. We left the metro at Nanjing West and walked our way through to East, aiming for the Bund, across the river from the famous Pudong skyline. First, we crashed into a booth at Carl’s Jr. for an inhalation of burgers and fries, and bottomless drinks. Can you blame us?
Along the way to the river, I ducked into a pharmacy looking for something generic to soothe the irritations caused by the last month’s diet. To my horror, when I explained this to the pharmacist she loudly said, ‘Oh, is this for HAEMORRHOIDS?’ (she may not have shouted the last, but it felt like it). Not really, I murmured back, scarlet. Same area of the body I guess? ‘Well, this one will work for HAEMORRHOIDS,’ she said, retrieving a cream. This is common of Chinese healthcare – patient privacy is not much of a concern. Assuming it would serve my purposes too, I paid for the cream with thanks, praying (in vain) that she wouldn’t say HAEMORRHOIDS to the pharmacy again. Later I discovered that, among other ingredients, it contained Bear Bile powder, and decided that I wasn’t in nearly enough discomfort. Chinese traditional medicine is easily as popular as ‘Western’ medicine, still, somehow.
The Bund was just as Bund-y as it was on previous occasions (I’m spoilt, aren’t I), except that the last section of street leading up to it was under police-supervised one-way pavements, and so we were shunted across the road onto the towards-the-river side for the last very crowded three hundred metres. Taking photos of the lights is always fun, and we walked along until we could duck away to a less crowded street and metro back to the hostel.
The last day was another go slow which must have been frustrating for the others, reflected in the broody storm clouds that gathered as we left for the station, not quite ready to burst. We waited, and then boarded, and within two hours were in Nanjing.